The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 676

Beckett sets aside a whole chapter to describe Murphy’s “mind,” which “pictured itself as a large hollow sphere, hermetically closed to the universe without.” As for his body, Murphy is not in the best of health; more specifically, he gets winded easily and walks with considerable deliberation. Most important, Murphy seeks repose in the mid-distance between the mind and the body, where neither aggravates the other. In the endless struggle between the two, Murphy has sought to call a truce. The other characters insist that mind and body must struggle eternally, and will not leave Murphy alone. In one of the most telling conversations between Celia and Murphy, Murphy tells her, “of you, mind, and body, one must go, or two, or all.”

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To understand the “character” of Murphy fully, one must set aside preconceived notions of psychological characterization constructed by an author and given life through the reader’s observations of the character in action, aided by an omniscient narrator. One critic refers to the novel as a sort of “reader-participation” novel, in that the clues to plot and character are disguised as seemingly irrelevant and arbitrary bits of information spilled onto the page as the narrator rushes through the text. Finally, Murphy is not so much a character as an embodiment of an idea, the idea of Beckett’s perceptions of the world—namely, that it is an unfortunate affliction to be born and that the implications of having been born are to be avoided wherever possible. While the other characters act with some attention to cause and effect, Murphy avoids effect by avoiding cause, steering clear of all decisions until they are forced upon him. However difficult this notion may seem to the reader, it is essential to the understanding of what Beckett is trying to do with this novel: present the notion of a man “without action.” Similar to other novels of the modernistic period (by James Joyce and Robert Musil, for example), Murphy is not “about” something so much as it is that something itself.

Of the other characters, the reader is most likely to sympathize with Celia, who loves Murphy in a way that he could never comprehend, but does so without the cloying, overpossessive love that is normally associated with this kind of relationship. Her only demand is that Murphy find a job in order to keep her off the streets. When he fails even to try to do so, she finally returns to a life of prostitution, and when he does find a job, he deserts her. The passage describing Celia slowly climbing the stairs, knowing Murphy is gone for good, is one of the most poignant in all of Beckett’s writing. Beckett gives her the final scene of the novel as well, when, in an act of mercy and compassion so typical of Celia’s character, she saves a wheelchair victim from drowning in a pond. Unlike the ultimately tragic case of Murphy, here Celia manages to save someone from self-destruction through inaction.

The basically comic quartet of Neary, Miss Counihan, Cooper, and Wylie offer something more than simple relief from the ennui of the main plot. They collectively represent the whirl of action, often pointless and directionless action, that drives the common man forward in every bit as absurd and meaningless a way as Murphy’s way, but with the illusion of design and purpose. Neary, tutor of one idea only (“Murphy, all life is figure and ground”), nevertheless disguises that idea in metaphor after metaphor. Miss Counihan is basically a parody of Irish propriety disguising Irish lustiness. Cooper, ever moving but eternally doomed to find himself in a tavern having forgotten his mission, is a physicalization of all pointless perambulation and quest. Wylie, besides serving Miss Counihan more admirably than Murphy, is Neary’s foil, relentlessly...

(The entire section contains 1280 words.)

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Critical Essays